In his well-known book, To Change the World, James Davison Hunter argued that the way to change the world is (1) to gather elite people (2) who are close to the power, who (3) are part of large networks and (4) who have abundant resources (5) to press for a cause. John Nugent, in his exceptional new book, Endangered Gospel, contends the way of Jesus is the exact opposite: it is to gather the unlikely who are not part of the systems of power and who are in small networks and who have few resources but who embody the gospel.
Nugent is all for good positive moral changes in our society. Don’t mistake that. But he argues that seeking to change the world through the powers diminishes the church and also loses the opportunity for Christians to shape the world.
Let me be as straightforward and clear as possible: it’s not the church’s job to make this world a better place (8).
He sketches in his new book three, yea four, “visions of a better place.”
1. The Heaven-Centered View
For almost two millennia, most Christians have hoped to leave behind all the pain of bodily existence in a fallen world and go to heaven after they die. Such people are realistic about sin’s destructive consequences and skeptical that much good will come from the mess that sin has made of God’s good creation. So God sent Jesus to provide a way out. Some people believe this happens immediately after we die. Others associate it with the second coming of Jesus. Either way, their conviction is that Jesus will raise his people from the dust of the earth and take them to be where he has been since ascending to heaven to prepare a better place for them. According to this view, God’s kingdom is not here and not yet. It is in the future and in heaven (9).
Though most believers and a good number of unbelievers once adhered to the heaven-centered view, it is rapidly losing ground—so much so that it is no more likely to make a comeback than flat earth or geocentric universe theories (10).
2. The Human-Centered View
Believers who abandon all hope of someday going to heaven typically embrace an earth-oriented view. 1 It affirms that when Jesus came and preached the kingdom of God, he was establishing a charter for how God’s will could be done on earth as in heaven. He was casting a world-transforming vision of social and economic justice. When people of faith embrace this vision and put it into action, they advance God’s kingdom and make this world better. Jesus began making this world a better place. It is the church’s responsibility to finish the job. I call this view “human centered” because it is pretty much up to humans to make this world a better place (10).Things will progressively improve only as humans embrace and implement God’s vision on a global scale (10).
The most important and central idea is this: history progresses in stages toward the kingdom of God through human effort (11).
The strongest criticism of this view is its optimistic take on what humans can and will accomplish in this world (11).
It has become increasingly difficult to imagine this world getting significantly better without some sort of dramatic divine intervention (11).
3. The World-Centered View
The fastest growing Christian view of a better place is world centered. It is most critical of the heaven-centered view. In keeping with the spirit of our age, its proponents tend to be ecologically sensitive. God made this world, he cares about this world, his people should care about this world, and he will indeed redeem this world (11).
Nugent thinks this view takes the best of the previous two and combines them.
It focuses on this world. It denies that humans will bring the kingdom. It acknowledges that the kingdom has already begun in Jesus. It insists that Jesus will return to finalize God’s kingdom and raise the faithfully departed to enjoy that kingdom forever (15).
But, is this the Bible’s view? He thinks not. “What I find lacking is its ecclesiology—how it presents the church’s nature and mission. Though it recognizes the uniqueness of God’s setapart people, it does not properly distinguish between the specific calling of God’s people and the generic calling of all people. It presumes that because God will ultimately restore all things, it is the church’s job to begin restoring all things. Though we will not bring God’s kingdom, we are still responsible for striving to make the world a better place” (15).
Hence, the world-centered crowd today are populating the “nones” and the “dones” and wonder Why the church? A well-known influencer in the USA about ten years ago was speaking all over and I once said to him, “Where is the church in all your ideas?” His answer? “I don’t know.” That answer is an apocalypse.
Though it may seem embarrassing, Jesus, Paul, Peter, James, Jude, and John paid little attention to making the wider world a better place. It only gets worse when one scrolls back through the Old Testament. The laws of Moses never instruct the Israelites to use their God-given way of life to improve the lot of people beyond their own borders. Tr s. The prophets—who held nothing back when criticizing God’s people—never condemn the Israelites for neglecting poor and needy neighbors who lived outside their land, even those in smaller and weaker nearby nations like Edom, Ammon, and Moab (16).
This view fails to distinguish (1) non human creation, (2) the new human order made possible in Christ, and (3) old human orders of creation.
I would add that many today have equated what God says to God’s people (Israel, the church) with one’s nation, thereby turning the Bible into — yes, totally right — a nationalistic document. That is, this view assumes one’s nation is the company of the redeemed. What’s worse, this view also tends to diminish talk of Christ and redemption and raise the ethics of redemption under Christ into secular principles of behavior.
He proposes 4. The Kingdom-Centered View. (In the next post I’ll sketch this view.)